Chakaia Booker’s art, which is featured in the Kniznick Gallery at the Women’s Studies Research Center until Nov. 4, speaks volumes about current issues by using old tires and wood slabs as sculptural creations. Booker is known for innovatively upcycling materials in order to convey societal messages — most notably, commentary on race, gender and the environment.

The showcase itself is titled “Speakeasy” and is curated by Susan Metrican. As to the reason for the gallery’s naming, “speakeasy refers to elusive territory, obscured potential and the surprising consequences of the artist’s manipulation of materials,” Metrican explained in its description.

Booker’s art has been presented in multiple exhibits and museums globally, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the “Twentieth Century American Sculpture” exhibition held at the White House in 1996.

From a considerable distance, her sculptures appear to be gnarled, dark and immense in size, catalyzing an almost ominous sense in the viewer. And while that’s true, when you get closer to the art and examine it more intimately, you’ll notice the amount of intricate detail engraved into the wood and the precise cuts of the rubber. This presents a fascinating layering effect, much like the artist’s multifaceted identity.

Booker has expressed to the National Museum of Women in the Arts that “the varied tones of the rubber parallels human diversity, while the tire treads suggest images as African scarification and textile designs.”

booker_speakeasy_9216_ab_0024
By AARON BIRNBAUM/the Justice

THOUGHTFUL IMAGERY: Booker’s pieces evoke an ominous feeling and explore a range of themes, including the environment and multifaceted human identity.

booker_speakeasy_9216_ab_0048
By AARON BIRNBAUM/the Justice

TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES: Each of Booker’s pieces have fine and precise detail that creates a layering effect when viewed up close.

At the same time, Booker addresses social matters: finding value in “garbage” (old tires in Booker’s case) demonstrates the “drive to recycle and find new uses for what was formerly defined as trash.”

She also explores feminism through her thoughtful concoctions. Booker confronts gender and biology in her titling of the rubber sculptures, fitting with their presence at the WSRC. Among the five sculptures is “Crossed Vagina,” resembling the shape of both a vagina and almost that of a bull skull with precise cuts and cleaner edges, and “The Nest,” which features a “female aperture,” as described by the New York Times. “Male Referendum” is another piece that appears to be Booker’s interpretation of a penis, including signature entanglement of pliable tire, however, with more rips and tears all throughout.

There is a simplicity to the sculptures but that doesn’t undermine their importance. Though the pieces showcased in the gallery seem to be created with only a few materials — rubber and wood, some attached by steel nails — the complexity and meaning shine through mightily. She has said in interviews that, to her, every piece of art has a different meaning, and this is influenced by the materials used and the place where the art is made.

Along with the prominent sculptures, a few of Booker’s framed, one-dimensional woodblock hand-paintings also splay the walls of the gallery. Many of them are untitled and depict abstract images created through geometric patterns and prints.

Booker’s art encompasses multiple topics, which is what makes her art so profound. Not only is each piece done with artisanal technique and extreme awareness, it also serves as an expression of Booker’s individuality without representing a singular experience. Her art moves many affected by the pertinent issues she aims to touch on.